Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 23, 2017

Fed. Dist. Court in MA Finds City Ordinances Regulating Drones were Pre-empted

Members of Newton’s City Council proposed discussing the possibility of regulating drones for the principal purpose of protecting the privacy interests of Newton’s residents. One resident, Michael S. Singer, challenged portions of the Ordinance that required that all owners of pilotless aircraft (referred to as “drones” or “UAS”) register their pilotless aircraft with Newton, and prohibited the operation of pilotless aircraft out of the operator’s line of sight or in certain areas without permit or express permission. Singer contended that the Ordinance was preempted by federal law because it attempted to regulate an almost exclusively federal area of law, in a way that conflicted with Congress’s purpose.

Singer first argued that because the federal government regulates unmanned aircraft and local aircraft operations, there was federal intent to occupy the field. Specifically, the FAA stated that, “State law and other legal protections for individual privacy may provide recourse for a person whose privacy may be affected through another person’s use of a UAS.” As the FAA explicitly contemplated state law, the court rejected Singer’s argument that the entire field was exclusive to the federal government.
Singer next contended that the challenged sections of the Ordinance obstructed federal objectives and directly conflicted with federal regulations. First, the FAA explicitly has indicated its intent to be the exclusive regulatory authority for registration of pilotless aircraft. Here, since Newton intended to register all drones, the court found the Ordinance’s registration requirements were preempted. Next, because the FAA mandated that drone operators keep drones below an altitude of 400 feet from the ground or a structure, Newton’s restriction of any drone use below this altitude eliminated any drone use in the confines of the city, absent prior permission, was likewise preempted. Lastly, the court found that the subsection of the Ordinance that limited the methods of piloting a drone, beyond that which the FAA has already designated, was preempted. Accordingly, these portions of the Ordinance were severed by the court.

Singer v Newton, 2017 WL 4176477 (D. MA 9/21/2017)

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